March 2, 2020

Game Changer: High School Team Athletic Trainer Aids Heart Attack Victim during Football Game

Tommy GassawayBy Cherry Odom, BSN, RN-BC

“My symptoms started during the second quarter of the ball game,” said Tommy Gassaway, a baseball coach at Asheville Middle School. He was working his seasonal job as the clock operator at a junior varsity football game at Asheville High School, when he had shoulder pain and felt like he had blacked out. He remembered the exact date – October 4, 2018. “I knew something was wrong,” Gassaway said. “I told announcer Keith Pittman to get me some help.”

Rapid Response

From the press box, Pittman phoned the athletic director of Asheville High School on the sidelines. Then the athletic director walked over and asked head athletic trainer Josh Owen, MHS, of Mission Sports Medicine, for help. Owen called the opposing team’s athletic trainer on the opposite sideline and asked him to take care of any injuries during the emergency.

“I was precepting an undergraduate athletic training student from Western Carolina University, Trayvon Simmons, that night, and he ran up with me to assist Tommy,” Owen said. “When I got to Tommy, he was very pale and sweaty. He told me both his shoulders hurt a lot, and he was having pain between his shoulder blades.”

Even though Gassaway had no chest pain, Owen recognized the gravity of the situation. He told Simmons to call 911 and another person in the press box to activate the Emergency Action Plan to help Emergency Medical Services (EMS) reach the press box.

Owen assessed vital signs, started oxygen and opened the AED (automated external defibrillator) from the emergency kit. Gassaway began to improve soon after oxygen was applied. The team physician was called and apprised of the situation.

To the Hospital

In about 10 minutes, EMS arrived and transported Gassaway to Mission Hospital. He admitted to not feeling well all day. His health history included high blood pressure and elevated cholesterol, both treated with medication. Also, his father died young from a heart attack.

Gassaway was in the hospital for four days and had a cardiac stent inserted. “The ambulance guys were the best I have ever seen; they knew exactly what to do and were so professional,” Gassaway said. “I remember the heart doctor and the procedure — wow! Very impressive and very personal. I was very scared, and they were all very calming.”

Owen visited Gassaway the next day in the hospital. “I felt great knowing that all the training and practice for events like this led to a life being saved. Tommy had an excellent outcome,” Owen said. His training includes certification in BLS (Basic Life Support) through the American Heart Association. He also is a BLS instructor for Mission Health, teaching others how to perform CPR.

Part of the Local Sports Community

During school hours, Owen is available to provide treatments, evaluations and rehabilitation to Asheville High athletes who sustain sports injuries. He collaborates with team physicians and other providers to deliver integrative care that supports the whole athlete. He attends daily practices and competitions on behalf of Mission Sports Medicine and provides immediate care when a significant injury occurs.

Gassaway was grateful to return to working the football games. “Actually, I only missed one game that season and did all the home games this year,” he said. “I also work all the home basketball games for Asheville High.”

He expressed his appreciation for Owen’s care during his heart attack. “I knew Josh from working the scoreboards at Asheville High and my coaching job,” he said. “He was very calm and professional. I feel like Josh was my calming person to get me to relax. I’m not sure I would be here without him

Mission Sports Medicine has had a strong presence in the Asheville and western North Carolina communities since 2011. Our elite sports medicine specialists have advanced training in specific parts of the body or areas of orthopedics, pediatrics, cardiology and neurology. Mission Sports Medicine’s unique team ensures unparalleled expertise in the diagnosis, treatment and surgery of injuries and conditions impacting our athletes.

A supporter of athletes of all ages and skill levels in the Asheville area, Mission Sports Medicine is proud to serve as the team physicians for the Asheville Tourists minor league baseball team, the University of North Carolina Asheville Athletic Department and local high schools, middle schools and recreational athletic organizations. To learn more about the program or to find a specialist near you, visit

Josh Owen, MHS, is head athletic trainer with Mission Sports Medicine.

To learn more about the Mission Sports Medicine program or to find a specialist near you, visit